It’s National Poetry Month! Some of you may object to that exclamation mark and think that National Poetry Month is not far removed from National Root Canal Month, but I beg a couple paragraphs’ worth of your indulgence to convince you otherwise.
Sometime before we were taught that only English teachers can understand poetry, I believe that everyone loved poetry. “Humpty Dumpty,” after all, is a poem.
In grade school, poetry is often taught first as if it were mainly a question of counting syllables and later as if it were written in a different language. Shakespeare and Chaucer wrote some amazing verses, but here are the first two lines of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote.
In the midst of your years of teenage angst, unless you were a future Middle English scholar, that might not have spoken to your soul. Imagine how different your relationship to poetry might be if, instead, you’d gotten a few lines of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Poetry is as close as we get to saying the unsayable. It’s the language to use when you most desperately need to be understood, when your heart is broken seven different ways and in the middle you find either unending despair or astonishing hope, when the beauty of a rain drop on a blade of grass has taken your breath away or reminded you of your own mortality or both.
If you like music, you like poetry. If you like the psalms, you like poetry. If you like Paul Simon, you like hard poetry. Here are a few lines from “Obvious Child” whose meaning is far from obvious (punctuation is mine):
I’m accustomed to a smooth ride,
Or maybe I’m a dog who’s lost its bite.
I don’t expect to be treated like a fool no more.
I don’t expect to sleep through the night.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, give me a month. I’ll post a beautiful and accessible poem every few days in addition to the regular Tuesday night entries. Here’s one of my favorites to start:
The Magical Eraser
By Shel Silverstein
She wouldn’t believe
This pencil has
A magical eraser.
She said I was a silly moo,
She said I was a liar too,
She dared me prove that it was true,
And so what could I do—
I erased her!